Untouched – Story by Anshu Johri

It was just a little flutter of a nameless sound at which her eyes had popped out, wide open, as if she had sinned while they were closed in deep sleep, like a tightened fist suddenly transitions to open palms or birth transitions to death. She rolled over on the bed. The pillow under her head squished and twisted without complains; it sort of knew that she wouldn’t be lying on it for long. What could your thoughts be when there’s nothing to think? She glanced outside, the sky still dark, few shivering stars, their shine caught by her blinking eyes…as if she was awake to catch this light which must have started its journey millions of light years ago. “What a waste of journey!” she thought, closing her eyes.

It had been a week now since she had filled the feeder with the wild bird food, yet there was no sign of birds. Now, this was rather unusual. In the past, whenever she had filled the feeder up to the brim, her yard was full of birds the next morning; birds in varying shades, sizes and sounds. The bigger birds bullied the smaller ones, to make room for themselves on the black feeder which had a glass case on the top. From a distance, it looked more like a lamp post than the bird feeder.

This black, unattractive feeder was a gift from Moitra’s when she had invited them for a dinner at her place. She hadn’t opened their gift for three weeks, had taken about a week after that to assemble it and it took another two weeks after assembling it to fix it in her backyard, buy the bird food and place it in the feeder. At that time, she expected that the birds too would take around two weeks of time to figure out about the food in the “lamp post look alike” feeder. But a chaotic chirping the next day had woken her up, an hour earlier than her usual time. The sun wasn’t up in the sky yet and the sudden interruption of chattering birds in a peaceful sleep had irritated her. The tranquillity of her backyard was invaded by sounds that were neither musical nor noisy. Some understated harmony of nature was breached!

But now, that harmony was back in place with a “tik tik” of digital clock, the soft hum of the refrigerator and the voluntary flushing of the toilet every now and then reminding her about the new rubber gasket that it needed.  She decided to get up.

 The morning sky still wore the grey with a thin pink streak gleaming out gently on the horizon. She peeped from her window to find out if there were any quiet invaders smart enough to have their breakfast without disturbing her, but a glance in the backyard proved very disappointing and detrimental. The street visible from her window blended with the morning grey except for a man jogging in a pair of white shorts and a white t-shirt, and the red fleece jacket of a fat woman trying to walk briskly were a few accounts of its conspicuity. On the brick chimney of the house next door, a pigeon sat, cleaning his neck with his beak, then he straightened it, before he flew away ignoring the feeder.

 “What’s happening to me?” She asked herself, “Why am I so overwhelmed by their absence? After all they are just wild birds, not my pets or anything. They are not bonded to me in anyway. But then, do THINGS bonded to you come back? Do they return searching you, do they search at all? Are bonds anything but a stillness of a phase of time, extracted then preserved in cold very much like vegetables, picked fresh, and then frozen with a nurtured belief that they can be thawed when needed?”

 She was in her bed again, lying in a foetal position, covering herself with the dark blue blanket, hoping, it would create the effect of a night gone by. In her vain efforts to catch some sleep she wanted to think about something else…for example Molly, who dressed up so well, that almost everyone at work is polite to her. She wondered if dressing sense and politeness fell under the purview of Newton’s third law of motion and were actually, action and reaction in disguise. All except those three Indian guys are polite to Molly. Those three Indian guys are extra, extra polite to Molly.

Those Indian guys whom she had given an acronym of “Triglycerides” had a separate group and they were unmarried; she whispered to herself “Single! Single is the way they should be referred to in general conversations over here in States.”  She wasn’t part of their group even though she was an Indian and unmarried, sorry, single. She apologized to herself. Well, not being in their group had saved her from being a “Triglyceride”; what a consolation and so soothing!

The “Triglycerides” shared a big cube and probably they shared their apartment too. They hung out together and smiled whenever Molly passed by their cube.  She had a sense that they smiled at her as well. Theirs’s wasn’t a friendly smile but the one which mocks you and, sort of looks down upon you; a smile which evaluates you, not as a person but trespasses the territories which you want to protect. She hated their smile as much as she hated waiting for these birds. Oh boy! She was back to birds. She decided to get up and get ready for work.

“What did you do over the weekend?”  Mr. John was asking her. For some weird reason, she never remembered Mr. John’s first name because from where she came John is the first name of the person or it is Elton John…She argued with herself that all John’s have to be Elton, or else how confusing it would be if they weren’t.

“Oh! I went hiking with my friends, after which we all watched the movie “Rebecca”, the old classic, at one of my friend’s place. After that we went to a restaurant for dinner…played cards. Next morning was usual, got up late because I had slept late, and then there was laundry, the dishes…”  Mr. John nodded his head in admiration as she spoke and she felt guilty of not having told him that all she did over that weekend was to wait for the birds.

During lunchtime Mr. John asked her if she wanted to join them for lunch, “Thanks Elton, I mean David,” she promptly corrected herself. She very much wanted to say that she had brought her lunch but on second thoughts that rushed to her at that moment she threw back a totally irrelevant question at him, “so who all are coming for lunch?”

“It’s me, Raghvan, William, Jude, Manjeet and Mark.

The group going to lunch was neither tempting nor intolerable so she decided to join them. They all went to a nearby Mexican restaurant. She ordered Chicken Fajitas.

Manjeet remarked, “So you would be eating only the chicken, the sour cream, the beans…”

“…and the guacamole sauce.” she replied.

“…and leave the tortillas to be fed to birds.” Manjeet completed her sentence.

She stared at Manjeet, and saw his white teeth between his wide grin and felt like smashing them, breaking his jaw into two and putting it in his plate with the dish that was being served to him. Instead she looked away on the street and saw a bird feeding on the leftovers. It was a black bird, with drowsy eyes and the whole combination of its black beak, the drowsy eyes, and the elongated neck gave it a cruel look. She thought that the bird had a very striking resemblance with Manjeet.

“So, he watches me when I eat my Fajitas. And why should I eat the Fajitas the way they are eaten? I would eat them the way it pleases me. Yes, I would eat the grilled chicken with sour cream and guacamole sauce, with spoons of refried beans in between and I would never, never eat the tortillas.”  Her breath was heavy with the retaliation of her unspoken words and it was Mr. John who was addressing Manjeet, “Man jit”, “Your dish looks very tempting.”

“So how was your surfing Raig Van,” Mark was asking Raaghvan.

“Oh! it was awesome,” Raaghvan replied. As the group indulged in gossips of surfing, seas and swimming she lost them somewhere while thinking about a blue Jay that visited her last time when she had put the bird food in her backyard. It was Arul’s fault to interrupt her life in a way that she forgot to fill the feeder when it was empty. The birds must have strayed here and there before they stopped coming to her backyard.

“Raiki(Raakhi), do you swim?” Mark was asking her.

“Sorry!” she replied.

“I asked if you liked to swim.”

“Not really, I am afraid of the Sharks out there.” She quickly collected herself and tried hard to portray as a serious participant of that whole conversation which had started from surfing.

“Sharks in the swimming pool…!” Manjeet hissed before bursting into laughter. She looked around to see a floating smile on everyone’s lips and she really wished to be in a swimming pool full of sharks, flying snakes and whatnot.

Raahgvan or “Raig Van” as addressed by Mr. John, and Mark etc. were still munching on their burrito when she felt like getting up and leaving. But she controlled herself, her eyes rolling back to that cruel, black bird which was pecking on a chicken piece.

As they strolled back to work, Raghvan declared, “Manjeet is getting married to a girl.”

“I am confused,” Raakhi replied. “What’s the news? Is it that Manjeet is getting married or is it that he is getting married to a GIRL?”

“Both.” Manjeet replied, his face flushed red like the Picanto sauce of the Mexican restaurant.

“Is it an arranged marriage?” Mark asked.

“Yes.” Manjeet replied.

“And the lucky lady is here or…”

“She is in India.” Manjeet answered before Mark could complete his question.

“You know her?” Mr. John asked in his husky voice.

“No. But my mother knows her and I have talked to her on phone, and have seen her photograph.” Manjeet tried hard to blend with the American way of marriage. After all it wasn’t as blind as they thought.

“So Raaki, would you also get married this way. Your mother would find a groom for you…” Jude asked Rakhi.

“It is different for girls. It is difficult to find grooms for them in India if they live in U.S.A.” Manjeet replied.

She was caught unawares by Jude’s question and had no time to react to Manjeet’s answer.

“My, my mother is looking around, but…but she would prefer if I find someone here.”

“And you too would have no problem marrying a total stranger?” Jude didn’t let go of her.

“I really don’t know what works. All of us start from being strangers to each other. I mean people over here are either very casual or very cautious in choosing partners yet I don’t see that permanence in relationship which I expect after such careful choosing. I think it doesn’t really matter…whether you live with someone for ten years, try to know each other and then decide to not get married or get married to a total stranger and then figure out after ten years that you can or cannot live together.”  She was quite when her mind concluded proudly and privately, “Perfection is illusionary and togetherness is sweet, sour, tangy and bitter. It has all the flavours.”

“So, the crux is that in any case, after ten years…either you would end up, knowing each other, living well or you would end up being incomplete strangers…” Raaghvan added with an intellectual fortitude.

“So, Man jit, what would have happened, if you had liked a girl here?” Jude sounded like a woodpecker, pecking over again and again and again, at the same point in the bark of the tree…tuk…tuk…tuk but the tree would just not give in.

“I would have needed my parent’s blessings even then”, replied the tree bark in Manjeet.

“What if they had refused?” Now Jude was really irritating her because she was not able to think about her birds any more. She was thinking about Arul.

“Well…knowing my parents, they wouldn’t have refused or rejected my choice. It would be just a matter of convincing them…”

“…or alternatively about them convincing you of your choice not being right.” She replied.

“Well, my parents have full faith in me…” She could sense the resentment in Manjeet’s voice.

“…that you would not go astray by finding a girl for yourself.” Raaghvan teased Manjit.

            “What would happen if you don’t like her, your wife?” Jude pestered.

“The chances of his wife not liking him are higher.” Raaghvan intervened and Rakhi laughed…loud, clear, the clarity of which infuriated Manjeet.

“Well, either way…” Jude wouldn’t just give up.

“It doesn’t happen. It’s the mind-set.” Manjeet was serious as he defended himself and he sounded very sure. “It never happens that you end up not liking the person you get married to.”

While they talked about arranged and deranged marriages and discussed love, she thought of Robins or Turdus Migraforious. That day she had told Arul about this flock of Robins who were visiting her every morning when he had asked her to congratulate her.

“Hey, congratulate me. I am getting married” he had said.

“You know Arul, Robins leave after the breeding season is over.” She had replied.

“What Robin yaar! You are not curious about my fiancée…what kind of friend…”

“I thought…I thought that you would…I mean I am…to whom… to whom would I talk to about all these birds that come to my backyard, stupid?” She had interrupted him sadly, stammered for a while and was a chirpy Robin the next moment, “I was just kidding.” She had said and laughed loudly. “Congratulations. Good riddance!”

It had been barely five months. Five months before Arul had declared that his parents weren’t agreeing to their marriage. They had decided to stay friends. Friendship is not a breakup, or is it? You start on a road called friendship, and then you take this tiny, quiet, dusty ramp off the road called love, walk on it for a while feeling exhilarated, thinking this is the best phase life has offered to you and that it is here to stay; you walk, walk and walk and then you hit the road again more or less from where you started and term it as a “breakup alias continuation of friendship alias end of love”. She felt weak not because she was weak but because she thought that Arul had the strength to stand by her and go astray. Her life had been such a counter cliché and yet a cliché, portrayed in every damn Indian movie with a predictable outcome of marriage.

“What are you thinking Raaki…?” William’s question had startled Rakhi.

“About Robins…Oh, nothing really! Some of my friends are planning a trip to Grand Canyon and have asked me to join them. There is this other bunch of people who want to go for white water rafting in Sacramento River. I am in a fix about the options that I have.”

“Well, Raaki…I like that kind of confusion. Let’s see, Grand Canyon and white water rafting. Hmm what would you suggest Mark?” William directed his query to Mark.

“I would say go for both. Take a week off and enjoy.”

Her eyes widened a little bit at this suggestion. “You are not serious about this Mark, are you?”

“Yes, I am.” Mark grinned.

As they neared the office building which bore a big placard of “Creative Semiconductors” she spotted the sparrows on the branches of the idle trees yawning in the gentle breeze. No, not even the sparrows had paid any attention to the bird food. How mean! She swiped her card at the gate and realized that everyone was behind her. She had been walking fast and she decided not to wait for others. But Mark caught up and she heard him utter “Thanks”.  He held the door for others and she moved on. She went to her desk but could not stop thinking about the birds. After Arul’s announcement of his marriage she suddenly lost her interest in feeding the birds, in almost everything. Day after day, she watched them coming to the feeder, pecking their beaks in the leftover husks of the grains and she did nothing. She lied on the sofa and watched the birds not come to her backyard anymore. She stood in front of the mirror for hours at her plain, dusky complexion; the dark circles under her dark brown eyes. But why does it have to be like this? In rejection, her wisdom analysed her appearance and her soul stayed quiet.

After Arul got married, she visited him and his wife.

“Meet Rakhi! She’s an engineer at “Creative Semiconductors”, a brilliant woman, likes birds and books… an inspiring friend of mine and Rakhi this is Meera, my beautiful, lovely wife who cooks great food, sings very well and should I tell her all the secret talents that you have.” He cuddled his wife as he completed her introduction and Rakhi thought that cuddling was intruding her conversation with Arul. She wanted to know what was inspiring in her. She needed it to inspire herself.

For weeks, not a weekend would pass by when she wouldn’t be at their house giving the new couple a not so pleasurable company. She could sense like the birds that the feeders for her life had gone empty; that she was pecking in the heap of husk without any reason or relevance. A mundane and empty sense of being unwanted dominated her thoughts. Everyone around her had a life…a life of their own…even the birds and so did she. The slumber of her soul broke without a noise. Awakening doesn’t always happen at dawn. It happens in dark nights too! She remembered the pair of lovebirds that Arul had brought for her. One was bright orange and yellow, the other was blue. They had an excellent mode of communication. The orange one scratched the blue one, with her beak, communicating where its body itched and the blue one gently scratched the orange one at the same spot with its beak. The birds followed diligently what she was taught at school, “Treat others as you would want them to treat you”.  After four months one flew away and the other one died. This was before Moitra’s had gifted her the bird feeder.

So, this was it. Arul clouds her thinking and turns her into a mushy idiot. Yet again; again, and again! What inhibits her to take that step to a bar, to smile flirtatiously, to dress up invitingly? In this very sense, she doesn’t belong here. Neither could she gear herself in traditional Indian garb in the photograph that was sent to Arul’s parents. In emphasizing herself with rigidity, is it possible that she doesn’t belong to India either…

How come the bitter sip of Cappuccino is so liberating… It fills you with hopes. She soothed herself.

When Mark came to her cube to discuss the pointer problem of the encoder, he found her googling about “Birds”, “How to get birds in your backyard”, “Ornithology, the science of birds…”

“Umm that encoder problem…” Mark scratched his head as he spoke.

“I was about to work on it.”  She promptly said. Mark left the cube and she started working on the problem when she noticed a pair of pigeons cooing on the window sill.

“Just go away,” she murmured. Mark peeped again. “Did you say that to me?”

“No! I am sorry. Not to you, but to those pigeons…” She pointed at the window sill and there were no pigeons.

“I think you really need that one week of vacation, Raiki.” Mark laughed.

“Yes, I think so too.”

She reached home that evening, and first thing she did was to check the feeder in the backyard. The bird food in there, untouched till morning was gone. She felt a strange happiness and a content gliding through her.  No, she wasn’t going anywhere. The birds were back. She didn’t want them to desert her again. She could still talk to Mark about her Grand Canyon trip and White water rafting. All she needed for that was Google. Thank God for this internet and this T.V, the Netflix and the YouTube. Today the birds were here and tomorrow she would have her own wings.